‘I became a United States citizen because this country is a place of hope.’
Frenal Mezilas, Lindenhurst
“I have been drawing since I was 10 years old in Haiti. My parents didn’t know much about art, but they never stopped me from doing it.
“My father was a tailor who made school uniforms for all the kids in our neighborhood. Once, I accidentally got paint all over his fabrics! I was so afraid of his reaction that I hid at our neighbor’s house but, surprisingly, he didn’t get as angry as I thought he would.
“When people discovered that I was an artist, they wanted me to paint their portraits. My classmates started paying me for drawings, and I used that money to buy paints and canvases. I painted on the street and perfected the technique of drawing faces and landscapes. I love abstract art and bright colors. I painted every day.
“In 1995, when I was 16, I got a painting job at a factory that made sculptures for tourists. I got a job working as a painter in a factory that made papier-mâché crafts that were exported to other countries.
“That job was a blessing to me! I had to bike 20 miles every weekday to get from my home to the factory. I worked from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m. I then rode my bike to school, where I stayed from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. I didn’t get home until nearly 8 p.m. and often took sculptures to paint over the weekend because, if I didn’t make my quota, I would not get paid. The factory provided all of the art materials, and I also used the supplies to create my own paintings.
“Within three years, I became a supervisor. I remained in that job for seven years before I left to attend college. Haiti had only one fine art university, and I applied late. The school officials were going to deny me entry, but they changed their minds when I showed them one of my paintings.
“I always wanted to go to college, so I could not quit school. In Haiti, private schools are very expensive. Public schools are free but, if your grades drop too low, you will get expelled and your education is over. I won art awards when I was in high school, and that helped me get into college. In 2010, there was an earthquake in Haiti, and I lost many artworks. I realized that I would not be able to make a living there, and my brother helped me get a visa to move to America.”
Some of my students cannot hold a paintbrush, so they paint with a sponge; others are blind, so they create paper mâché sculptures based on touch.
“After I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I went to Mexico, where I painted and attended more art classes. I was inspired by Mexican craftsmanship, and I started experimenting with mixed media. My art is very recognizable because it’s three-dimensional. I create abstract and surrealism backgrounds and then attach ceramic masks that protrude from the canvas. I like mixing surrealism with realism and cubism. My style embodies years of artistic exploration, and I’m proud to have created my own distinctive style.
“In 2011, I moved to the United States. I came to Long Island because my cousin lived in Uniondale, and I exhibited my work at libraries and Hofstra. I got a job teaching at Creative Art Space in Lynbrook and stayed there for eight years. Today my full-time job is teaching art to people with disabilities. I became a United States citizen because this country is a place of hope. There are so many opportunities for artists here, especially in New York. It is very rewarding when people appreciate my art. My ultimate goal is to have a big studio where I can create and teach. I want to exhibit my artwork all over the world and for people to continue to enjoy my creations even after I am gone.
“In 2013, I applied for citizenship. In 2014, I got married and my son was born. Once I got my residency papers, I got a job at Walmart; I eventually became a manager. In 2017, my friend told me about a job at Adults and Children with Learning [& Developmental] Disabilities in Bethpage. I applied and was hired! I left Walmart and started teaching activities and art at ACLD. It makes me feel so good to help people who really need help. Some of my students cannot hold a paintbrush, so they paint with a sponge. Others are blind, so they create papier mâché sculptures based on touch. This job is one that I put all my heart into.”
Interviewed by Meagan J. Meehan